U-M Student contributor
There were only two requests made of the various faith communities when creating the Daytime Warming Center: a spacious area and coffee. Sheri Wander, the Coordinator of the Warming Center, had searched for places that would be willing to host homeless people during the day. A spacious area to relax and a cup of coffee, believe it or not, “is the thing that makes the Warming Center work,” said Ben Foster, Volunteer Coordinator of The Center.
The Warming Center originated during the polar vortex of 2014 when temperatures were consistently 15-20 degrees below zero. Although the Robert J. Delonis Center, the main homeless shelter in Washtenaw County, provided temporary shelter, it was too small for the community’s demands. The Delonis Center includes a nighttime warming shelter, which allows overflow homeless people to sleep on mats; however, they are woken up early and asked to leave for the day. Due to severe weather, the Delonis Center dropped their weather amnesty to ten degrees, meaning that when the temperature reached ten degrees or lower, folks were allowed to stay in the shelter for warmth. But, this was a strict ten degrees. So, where were they supposed to go if temperatures were to rise to a frigid eleven degrees?
Wander and others took the matter into their own hands and approached their first faith community: St. Mary’s Student Parish. To their surprise, the church agreed to allow homeless individuals to occupy their basement during the day for the coldest weeks of winter. After five weeks, Father Dan — the priest at St. Mary’s Student Parish — and Wander evaluated the situation. Thankfully, Father Dan promised to put a good word in for the Warming Center at other churches in the Ann Arbor community under one condition: a staff person must be hired.
Immediately, Wander and others went to the county and the city and asked for money to hire a staff person. After going through an interview process, Wander was asked to fill the position herself.
The Warming Center has blossomed since its inception. This year, the Warming Center is running from December through March, switching locations every month.
The Warming Center, as Foster puts it, is “for the homeless community, run by the homeless community.” Foster explains how, upon entering the Center, it might be hard to differentiate those who volunteer from those who are homeless. Wander happily recalled an instance when a volunteer approached her and said, “I’m not sure who’s homeless and who’s a volunteer.” That is the point. The Warming Center differs from other shelters in the sense that it is an autonomous space and is democratically self-governed.
The homeless community is completely responsible for the daily operations of the center and the supervision of the staff. Upon entering the Warming Center, each person signs a community contract, agreeing that they will behave properly while at the Center. Wander explains that no matter “if you see yourself as a guest, if you see yourself as a staff person, a volunteer, if you’re the pastor of the church…[or] if you’re the mayor who wants to come visit,” it is a requirement that you sign the contract. The contract states that the Center is a place that equalizes everyone. Every person is held accountable for making sure others are doing what they are supposed to and acting on their best behavior.
The Center has community meetings at least once a week in which every homeless person and/or volunteer is highly encouraged to participate. Beyond these weekly meetings, anyone is welcome to call a meeting at any time throughout the week. Reasons for calling the meetings could include resolving a fight or any other urgent matter. These meetings ensure that peace and safety are paramount.
The volunteers and people of the Washtenaw County community are the glue that holds the Warming Center together. These volunteers and community members take time out of their schedules to come and give their various services to the guests at the Warming Center. The Center has hosted volunteers who give yoga classes, hair cuts, massages, manicures, baking lessons and who share arts and crafts tips. They even assist with job applications and resumes. Activities and helpful lessons like these are greatly appreciated and are a large fraction of what makes the Warming Center so unique.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, activities like these came to a halt. There wasn’t a question of whether the Warming Center was going to happen, but there was a question as to where. Many churches were very resistant to hosting. Journey of Faith was the first church to bravely open its doors to the Warming Center. Thankfully, this set off a domino effect and other hosting sites began to open up.
COVID-19 protocols at the Center included wearing masks and taking temperatures. Even if people did show symptoms upon entry, they were still allowed to enter but went straight into isolation. However, this was a rare occurrence.
Though there were not many restrictions at the Center during the pandemic, Wander explained that the biggest adjustment was that, if you already had housing, you could not come to the Center. In the past, the Warming Center had never refused those with housing, but this restriction had to be put into place. Wander expressed her sadness for having to place this restriction, as those who are newly housed tend to feel isolated from their community. She thinks of the newly housed as a “stabilizing force” because they understand how the Warming Center works and can relate to those who are utilizing the Center’s services.
The Warming Center’s sense of community is really what makes it so different from any other homeless shelter. The people who utilize it, whether as a guest or volunteer, are there to help and lift each other up. Foster told the story of a man who carried his guitar with him everywhere as “music was his passion.” Sadly, someone at The Center destroyed his guitar, which angered everyone because they knew how much the guitar meant to him. Volunteers and guests raised enough money to buy him a new guitar within thirty minutes!
Wander related the story of an older woman who regularly experienced delirium while sleeping. She explained that one day two people stumbled into the Center screaming at and shoving each other. To stop their fighting, every single person in the room stood up and formed a physical wall so that they could not reach each other. The older woman, who was disrupted from her sleep, went up to one of the men and softly said, “Young man, that is not the way we behave here.” Between collecting money for a new guitar and building a wall to halt a fight, it’s evident that the Warming Center has created a community where people are treated like family.
The Warming Center was created to ensure that everyone had a place to go during the coldest months of winter. It is a place people can enter with confidence, knowing that they will be treated equally. Those who utilize the Center are fortunate to have access to its valuable resources and the strong community that it provides between guests, volunteers and other residents of Ann Arbor.
Wander’s only two initial requests were for an area where homeless people could rest and enjoy a cup of hot coffee. The entire team at the Warming Center achieved so much more. Many folks come to the Center for a nap and a cup of coffee but stay because of the loving, strong and unique community that has been built over the past seven years.